Asian American Studies Grows in Response to Rise in Racial Attacks and Activism.

Over five decades have passed, during which Asian American studies has been acknowledged as an academic discipline in American universities and colleges. However, students outside of California seeking to pursue it as a major or minor face limited opportunities.

Nonetheless, a shift is underway.

In 2022, Duke University introduced an academic minor in Asian American studies. Harvard University, often criticized for its scant offerings in ethnic studies, bolstered its faculty by hiring two tenured members specializing in Asian American studies over the last two years.

Vanderbilt University revealed its new major and minor in Asian American and Asian Diaspora Studies in 2023. Simultaneously, Williams College initiated a concentration akin to a minor, while Fordham University also launched its minor.

At Amherst College, where I am a faculty member, a major in Asian American and Pacific Islander studies was recently established, set to commence in the fall of 2024. Amherst will become the first liberal arts college in the nation to introduce a major in this field.

The Claremont Colleges in Southern California, namely Claremont McKenna, Harvey Mudd, Pitzer, Pomona, and Scripps, have jointly offered a shared major for 25 years. Likewise, public high schools throughout the country have witnessed a surge in content related to Asian Americans.

### Lobbying Efforts Over the Years

These academic programs did not materialize overnight. Students across these campuses, alongside others, advocated for Asian American studies for an extended period. Student activists nationwide, spanning regions from the South to the Northeast and Southwest, persist in lobbying for an expansion of courses and the inclusion of majors or minors in this field.

However, achieving curricular changes in Asian American studies and related fields requires more than just student activism and faculty interest. At Amherst, students had been pushing for greater emphasis on Asian American studies for five decades.

The recent commitment to enhancing course offerings and hiring permanent faculty members, in contrast to visiting faculty, is partially rooted in tragedy. Programs have expanded in response to the heightened attacks on Asian Americans, particularly following the 2021 murders of spa workers in Atlanta, amid increased racial animosity exacerbated by former President Donald Trump’s rhetoric on the “Chinese virus.”

### Inspiring New Programs through Battles against Discrimination

Historically, ethnic studies programs emerged in response to protests against public discrimination. The establishment of Black, Native, Latino, and Asian American studies in California followed the Civil Rights Movement and the protests of the 1960s.

The surge in discriminatory attacks during the pandemic sparked increased activism among Asian American students, prompting a call for greater representation of their heritage and experiences in course offerings. It also prompted university administrators to acknowledge that, contrary to stereotypes, Asian Americans remain subjected to a unique kind of discrimination as “forever foreigners,” warranting increased attention in the college curriculum.

With more schools joining the ranks of institutions offering programs in Asian American studies, the scope of content within these programs is also broadening. Key topics now central to Asian American studies include critical race theory and critiques of the United States as an “empire,” alongside discussions on U.S. militarization.

Advocates of Asian American studies are often aligned with political views supporting Palestinians and affirmative action, reflecting the field’s origins in 1960s and 1970s student activism, which has kept political engagement central to the discipline.

Meanwhile, the field’s foundation in the humanities and humanistic social sciences has previously left out other disciplines, a trend that is gradually changing. In recent years, the Association for Asian American Studies has emphasized the need for greater interdisciplinary engagement, connecting faculty across various fields with Asian American studies and providing mentorship programs for these faculty members.

As Asian American studies continues to expand on campuses, there is a growing push to broaden its areas of representation, offering a more comprehensive understanding of Asian American experiences. Such insights may shed light on the underlying conditions contributing to the increase in programs dedicated to Asian American studies on college campuses and the broader societal context.

Reflecting back on the past five decades when Asian American studies were a rarity, it is plausible that in the next 50 years, programs integrating diverse disciplines may become more mainstream.

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